Islands of Awe

Islands of Awe
Sumatra, a large Indonesian island west of Java and south of the Malay Peninsula Photo Credit: Penguin Random House

In a new book on Indonesia, travel writer Mark Eveleigh goes on an adventurous 15,000-km journey to discover its natural, cultural and historical riches

Sumeet Keswani
October 04 , 2022
05 Min Read

At a time when travel writing faces an imminent danger of redefinition by SEO-driven content and 60-second Instagram reels, writer and photographer Mark Eveleigh is a flagbearer of tradition. Pick up any of his countless features in the most prestigious travel publications, and you’ll know he does things the old—and right—way. But this book on Indonesia may just be his masterpiece.

Over the last 25 years, Eveleigh has explored hundreds of islands in Indonesia (it has 13,466) on short trips for magazine stories. He has even made a home in West Bali. But the travel writer wanted to make a more structured exploration. “What if I could experience, on one journey, how the world’s biggest island nation varies as it stretches from the tip of Sumatra in the west to the border of Papua New Guinea in the east?” he wondered. This thought put him on a 15,000-kilometre journey—by rail, road, on foot, and under sail—across 50 islands. The result: this definitive book on Indonesian islands, communities, cultures, volcanoes, waters, and wildlife. You’d think that such an undertaking needs extensive planning. But Eveleigh knows that things don’t always go according to plan and time is fluid in Indonesia. “Jam karet—rubber time—is a concept to which the traveller must adapt very quickly,” he writes. This wonderful spontaneity lends a thrilling undercurrent to his travels.


 'Kopi Dulu' by Mark Eveleigh

The book declares at the beginning that its title Kopi Dulu (literally ‘coffee first’) “is an Indonesian catchphrase that symbolises the easy-going, highly sociable attitudes of Indonesian people.” But kopi also plays an important role in Eveleigh’s meanderings. Sometimes, it is a way to blend in with locals at a warung; at other times, it is a warm cup of consolation offered to a sobbing migrant mother on a ferry to Malaysia. In many ways, kopi is the author’s entry ticket to the locals’ inner lives and trust circle.

Eveleigh not only speaks Bahasa Indonesia—learnt from a dictionary in 1995 before his first expedition—he also bonds with locals, partaking in their betel-nut-chewing pastime, before asking for their consent for pictures (and later sending them prints that will make for heirlooms). He also knows when to play the blonde-haired jester for locals who are more easily amused than befriended. Eveleigh uses a wide array of public transport to get around on this epic journey and witnesses an even wider fleet—vintage BSA motorbikes with sidecars, bendis (horse-drawn carriages), and becaks (cycle-trishaws) in peculiar towns, as well as keteks (speedboats) on rivers. He hitchhikes on a pickup truck in Flores and has to burrow among rice sacks on a bandung (cargo boat) on a six-day river voyage to reach the interiors of Borneo, where tribes hold on to morbid memorabilia from their headhunting days.

He carries his trusty hammock everywhere from jungles infested with leeches to ships and flophouses, but there are exceptions. One of the sections sees him sailing on a super yacht—laden with English breakfast spreads and French wines—across the Lesser Sundas. Eveleigh himself calls the luxuries outlandish but grabs the opportunity to snorkel with manta rays, pioneer a previously un-surfed wave in the Alor archipelago, and talk to boat builders living under a looming volcano. His surfer alter ego surfaces multiple times over the course of the book, cashing in on the famous waves at G-Land, Nias, and Occy’s Left. Non-surfers might skim through these chapters, but there’s enough adventure, humour, and historical context to tide over the sport’s jargon. They let me catch my breath between hair-raising accounts of Komodo dragon encounters, Sumatran tiger tracking, and volcanoes blowing their heads off.


Eveleigh’s travel narratives are luminous guides for anyone wanting to travel responsibly. He absorbs and narrates various legends and rituals of different communities with sensitivity, and sometimes scientific scepticism, but never derision. From the dark magic tales submerged in the colour-changing crater lakes of Kelimutu to the giant ancestors of diminutive islanders in Pulau Pura and anecdotes of the orang pendek—a primate supposed to be the missing link between orangutan and man—in Sumatran jungles, the author takes you on a magical journey where the borders between reality and fiction blur pleasantly.

The long and winding journey is rife with discovery, the kind that modern-day travel writing is starved of—thanks to hosted trips and pre-booked itineraries. Eveleigh is the true embodiment of ‘wanderlust’ in a world that uses the word too often and too loosely. For instance, the author and his guide need to employ a machete to clear out a forest trail on Rakata island, which has one of the world’s youngest ecosystems—thanks to the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. Despite his decades of experience, there is always a sense of wonder—and at times dread—conveyed with his signature brand of nihilistic humour: on Anak Krakatoa, he writes, “As I held a match to the small stack of tinder under the campfire, I had the absurd feeling that I was lighting a fuse on the world’s biggest powder-keg.”

Like all good journalists, Eveleigh has done thorough research on his subject. He quotes freely from books and memoirs, sometimes unpublished, of diverse people—displaced locals, colonial powers, Western explorers, prisoners of war. It is this overlapping of voices that makes his narrative come alive with a juxtaposition of the past and the present. The book not only takes you across the length of Indonesia spatially but also temporally.

Eveleigh is surprised that the biggest island country in the world remains ‘invisible’, that most people aren’t able to place it on a map. (Most people in the West, I presume.) But I believe that his riveting book may very well turn the tide. Indonesia may finally find a place on the map of many explorers, most of whom will be clutching a copy of Kopi Dulu in one hand and nursing a cup of kopi in another as they lose track of ‘rubber time’ in the country. I suspect, however, that no matter how hard they try to replicate his adventures, not everything will go according to plan.


Kopi Dulu:Caffeine-Fuelled Island-Hopping Through Indonesia

Author: Mark Eveleigh

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Pages: 400


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